When Stephen Hook was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2011, he tried all of the conventional treatments available to eradicate the disease from his body. But after six months of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and another course of anti-cancer drugs, the disease continued to return.

“I tried everything, but the cancer kept coming back,” says Hook, a 41-year-old construction contractor from Ashville, N.Y.

Immune system overdrive

Desperate for another course of action, last year Hook pursued an innovative treatment known as immunotherapy. This new anti-cancer therapy uses Hook’s own immune system to fight the disease by helping it identify and attack cancer cells that it previously couldn’t recognize. As he continues to receive treatment, Hook says the decision has been life-changing.

“The differences between chemotherapy and immunotherapy are like night and day,” Hook says. “I have absolutely no side effects and I have all of my energy back. It allows me to be almost 100 percent normal as I fight my cancer.”

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves immunotherapy for the treatment of more types of cancer, positive results have helped this new personalized medicine evolve into a promising new pathway in the future of cancer therapy.

Hook is being treated with a drug called nivolumab (Opdivo), which is known as a “checkpoint inhibitor.” While some cancer cells can trick the body into recognizing them as normal and benign, Opdivo exposes those cells so the immune system can identify and attack them.

“‘With immunotherapy, I don’t feel run down or have to take other drugs to counteract side effects like with chemo.’”

Getting back to normal

While the treatment is showing encouraging signs in the fight against cancer, it’s the improved quality of life it affords that has Hook singing its praises.

“With immunotherapy, I don’t feel run down or have to take other drugs to counteract side effects like with chemo,” he says. “Before, I felt like I was losing the years I was in the treatment because I couldn’t participate in my life. But now, I haven’t lost a single birthday, anniversary or holiday to the side effects of my treatment.”

In addition to feeling good, Hook says immunotherapy also allows him to receive treatment without disrupting his family’s life, even though he drives six hours each way every two weeks to receive the one-hour intravenous drip.

“We had to make a lot of big arrangements to prep for my other treatments, and my wife had to come with me,” he explains. “Now I can go alone and my wife can still work and be there when our boys get home from school. Everything is just back to normal.”

As he and his doctors monitor his progress, Hook also says his personalized medicine gives him the peace of mind of knowing that unlike conventional treatments, if he has to stay on it long-term he can do so while continuing to live a full life.

“It’s an amazing treatment for the cancer I have, and I have no worries about continuing it into the future,” he says. “After four years of being abnormal, it feels so good to have my life back.”